(This is Part 4 of my Leadville Trail 100 race story. Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here and Part 3 is here, if you want to catch up! Also, I’m verbose. I hope I don’t lose those of you who’ve read these so far!)
Part 4: On Top of Hope Pass (45) to Winfield (50)
Do you know that feeling when your car just starts kind of running rough… it’s not too dramatic, but something just doesn’t seem right?
That’s sort of how I felt as I came over the top of Hope Pass. I believe the time was already after 4:00 pm, which meant there was no way I was going to be able to make it down to Winfield at my hoped for (get it?) 4:30 pm.
I’d not felt super great coming up the front side of Hope, but then again, I chalked it up to the fact I’d done more than 40 mountain miles and that I was climbing to the highest point on the course.
But, I figured I’d make good time down the backside of Hope and into Winfield, so I started making my way down. Almost immediately, I came upon Becki, who was absolutely crushing it! She was cruising uphill, very near the top and was about to bomb back to Twin Lakes, hours ahead of me! We said a super quick hello, without stopping because we were both super focused, but it was a boost to see a familiar face!
I started running/ hopping/ jogging my way down, but there is something to note about the backside of Hope Pass… it’s freaking steep. And, the further down you get, the steeper it gets… steep enough that solid running became somewhat impossible… especially with the steady stream of runners making their way back up the trail on their way towards Leadville again.
But, I made good time. One runner, who made it plain to everyone in earshot that she’d run this race many, many times, shared that she thinks of the backside of Hope in 3 sections: the switchbacks, the rocks and the trees. This is actually a pretty helpful understanding. After you crest the top of the pass, the trail meanders back and forth and back and forth in a series of switchbacks, and it’s quite runnable. Then, the trail enters a series of very, very technical rocky areas with some scree and some large boulders. Finally, the trail enters a gorgeous aspen forest, and begins to tilt precipitously down. And along with the tilt, the constitution of the trail switches from rocks to deep, dark, rooty earth. The beauty of the forest belies the treacherousness of the trail.
If you’re not careful, you can easily catch a toe and fall. Exactly like I did!
I had not fallen since much earlier in the morning with my mishap on the road, but this was a different sort of fall. The first time, I’d lurched forward. This time, because the hill was so steep, and because I keep my weight shifted back when going downhill, the effect was to drop me onto my butt, so it didn’t hurt at all.
But, because my fatigued left leg had instinctively shot out to catch me, my left calf seized into a giant knot, a massive Charlie-horse, locking my lower leg up completely.
The kind souls in front asked if I was okay, and I was…
I was just waiting to see if my left calf was going to release itself.
I actually wondered if this was it. If this was how it was going to end, with me miles from an aid station with a locked up lower leg giving me a clubfoot.
But, with a few wiggles of the toes and some massaging, it loosened up enough for me to stand and get walking. And with a little walking, I jogged a bit. It loosened all the way up and I was good to go!
Shortly after this, we came to what I thought was the bottom of the trail, where we turned right to make our way to Winfield, at last.
You see… the only time I’d gone up and down this section of trail was a couple of years previous, and the course had changed since I’d scoped it out in planning for Ben’s running of Leadville. And this little spur over to Winfield was completely new to me.
And so, I kept moving to get there.
With the excitement of the fall fading, and with the reality that I (thought I) was at the bottom, I began to notice the “rough running engine” a bit more. My chest had been tight and my breathing had been shallow, but again I had chalked that up to being up higher. And here I was down lower and it wasn’t getting better.
But, I was still moving well, and I was still eating and drinking okay, so I kept on.
I found myself in another “conga line” with a bunch of runners. And it was clear none of us had ever done this section of trail before. The girl who was in the lead of the line, just a couple of runners ahead, kept asking the runners coming towards us how much further to Winfield. “Just a mile or so…”
Great! I’ll pick up Luke, and we’ll get back up and over Hope again…
But, quite a bit of time went by and runners kept answering, over and over again, “Just a mile or so…” or, “about a mile, not much further,” or “your so close!”
And more and more time went by and the answer didn’t freaking change! And since none of us had been on that section of trail, it became infuriating.
And something subtle happened, and in hindsight, it’s very clear to me, but at the time, I didn’t pick up on it… Negativity started seeping in.
The girl out in front of the line began complaining loudly about how much further we had to go. And I didn’t have the energy to pass her. Others around chimed in with some negativity. I felt that negativity.
And I began to feel crappier, and crappier. My chest hurt more. My breathing was shallower. I was struggling. Hard. I began to have those thoughts that I mentioned way back in Part 1 of this series… that I just wanted to be done. I just wanted to be finished. Maybe I DID have HAPE and I was about to die?
And still people kept freaking answering, “Just a mile or so more!” so cheerfully… but by now we knew it was all LIES!
Winfield would never come. And if it did, maybe I could just be done because I had a life threatening medical condition.
Oh, the histrionics of an ultra.
(Side Note: I’m absolutely astonished at the massive power of negativity to derail and distract. It’s crazy how low I got in such a short time. I attribute much of how terrible I felt to just swimming in negativity for a while…)
Eventually, we’d made it… the trail markers turned left and we dropped off the trail, down onto the road into Winfield. Well, we’d sort of made it… it was still another quarter mile down the road to get to the aid station/ turn around point. Grrrr.
I found Luke, and my aforementioned seminary friend Deanna and they were ecstatic to see me. I also saw Chris Doucet, who was there with Luke and Deanna, waiting to pace Joey back up and over… he stayed along the road to keep an eye out for Joey.
I was, as I’ve shared, in a bit of a dark place. So, we got my numbers checked in the med tent (see Part 1 for the full story), and once I was cleared medically, there was no doubt, no hesitation… it was time to get going again! We just had to keep an eye on things to make sure I wasn’t having a heart attack. No big deal.
Luke and Deanna helped me repack my pack with some of the stuff that Luke had carried with him when Sara dropped he and Chris off earlier. A few sips of this, a nibble of that and we were out and on our way once again, with encouragement from Deanna and Chris.
Winfield (50) to Twin Lakes (60)
Luke freaking Giltner. Luke is awesome. While I was still in a pretty negative headspace, Luke was great. Encouraging and pushing, but not too hard…
We got back up on the trail spur towards the base of Hope and started making pretty good time. My chest was tight, but it was manageable. Luke kept asking about the symptoms of a heart attack that the medical personnel had shared: “Are you just short of breath, or is your left arm getting numb?”
Just a ways above Winfield, we finally ran into Joey, who looked just a little rough… or maybe it was concerned? The time had to have been close to 5:30 (and WAY past my anticipated time for getting out of Winfield), and the cutoff for the Winfield aid station was 6:00. We didn’t really think about it at the time, but in later conversations, Joey said that working hard to stay ahead of that cutoff was one of the hardest things he’d ever done.
And as Luke and I kept going, it was extremely sobering to realize that many of the people who were still streaming downhill towards Winfield were not going to make it. They were done for the day.
Luke and I did great until we got to the left turn where the climb up Hope starts in earnest. I’d still be moving well and I’d still be eating okay, too, but once we hit that wall of a climb, everything slowed to a crawl. It was like there was a limiter on my breathing. My heart rate was staying pretty pegged. And I just couldn’t go uphill very quickly at all!
Waves of people were passing us. When I tried to eat a gel, I had to stop because there wasn’t the breathing capacity for eating and moving at the same time. And still, Luke was awesome… “Hey buddy, ummmm… can you do that while you’re walking?” He patiently goaded me into keeping moving.
But, my caloric intake began to drop off… Gels were becoming harder and harder to choke down.
Luke kept trying to get me to eat, but I just felt like I could. Not. Do. It.
Our movement was barely perceptible as forward progress. More and more passing us…
It was just so very hard.
We inched our way up through the trees section, and finally came to the rocks section.
In front of the other.
Slow or stop to eat part of a gel. Stare off into space.
There wasn’t thought of stopping or quitting here. It was just so hard to keep moving.
At one point I’d stopped to eat a gel and Joey and Chris had finally caught back up to us. It was great to see them, but I could barely register that thought or emotion. I heard from Joey later that was deeply, deeply concerned. He thought I was a goner.
Seeing them got me moving again, though. Step by step. Inch by inch. Foot by foot. Yard by yard.
We made it to the switchbacks section. I remember a pacer singing loudly, so very, very loudly, a song from “The Sound of Music” through here… it was kind of funny. But, I wasn’t entirely amused.
Luke, gently encouraging… “Come on buddy. You’re doing great.”
I asked him to count the switchbacks for me, so I could have a countdown to the top. He said there were five.
Step by step… 4.
Inch by inch… 3.
Moving forward… 2… but… that was it! We were on the last smooth slope to the top! I could see the prayer flags streaming out in the glowing, evening light!
And then, it was done! I’d made it back to the top of Hope Pass for the second time! The fourth great beast… the biggest, gnarliest beast was finished!
We crested the hill and began the descent. And I was transformed! I was ready to run again!
Luke very, very wisely had me slow my roll a bit, just to get my legs and muscles used to the change in motion. So, we held on for a bit, but we were moving downhill again!
Soon, though, we were really running. 55+ miles into this thing and we were running. That felt so, so good. We came up on the Hopeless aid station once again, and Luke got me some soup and noodles while I filled a bit of water.
A quick stop and we were cruising again. After eating a bit, I felt better once again and we started flying. Passing people, picking them off a few at a time.
And suddenly, there was Joey and Chris again! We had a good bit of chatting with them for a few minutes, and then we were off. Running downhill, as I’ve shared, really is one of my favorite things, and with the fading light, we wanted to take advantage as much as we could.
As we entered the trees, night fell fully and we donned our headlamps. We were still moving better than most others we were encountering, so we were carefully passing people when the trail allowed. There are sections that are simply too technical and rocky to move very quickly, though, so we chose our passes well.
The change from just one hour before was astounding. There’s an old saying in ultras: “It never always gets worse.” And it hadn’t. I had come back from the brink.
Soon enough we were down to the base of the climb, and we were onto the flat field (which had become a swamp) where the only water crossing that had turned into seven water crossings was to be found. I gave Luke my pack and sent him ahead to run into the aid station to let them know I was close and to begin repacking things for the next stage of the race.
With night fully set in, and the air temperature dropping, that water felt twice as cold now as it had hours earlier in the heat of the afternoon. And upon exiting the second crossing I had to pee sooooo bad… amazing how cold, cold water does that! And I also believe there were some Seinfeld jokes with other runners about shrinkage.
After making our way through the water, and then through the stinky muck, I jogged/ walked my way through the last mile back into Twin Lakes… to a hug and kiss from my wife and into the helping, loving care of the #WCE.
We had planned for this to be the longest stop of the race, where I would clean up from the water crossings, change shoes and socks and get geared up for the long night ahead. I sat in a chair to tend to my feet, and oddity of oddities, when I tried to actually touch my feet, my leg just went kind of crazy and started locking up on me!
I was trying to deal with a massive, massive blisters on my left heel, but I just couldn’t get to my own leg. And here, I was introduced to the brand newest member of the #WCE, Trenton Kennedy aka Dolphin. Trenton is an “ultra-curious” friend of Luke’s who wanted to come out and see what this was all about and suddenly, he’s helping me pop a blister and apply super glue to my disgusting, beat to hell after 60 mile stanky feet.
(Also, Joey and Chris came in very quickly after Luke and I arrived and then they were out ahead of us! Amazing!)
Sara was closely watching the clock. We were now approaching 9:30, a full hour later than my anticipated 8:30, and dangerously close to the 9:45 cutoff time.
I changed clothes, added layers, got fresh batteries, stocked up on food and water and we were about to leave. Someone asked if I wanted any éclairs, which are a favorite of mine during an ultra, and so I said “YES!” because I was so glad to be able to eat something.
And with Sara’s strong encouragement and reminders of the time, we were done with this aid stop.
We made our way out of the #WCE camp, across the highway and into the actual aid station, where someone asked if I wanted noodles… and again, I said “YES!” because I was so glad to be able to eat something, to actually want to eat something.
This seemingly simple little innocuous would turn out to be not so innocuous.
Suddenly, Sara appeared again with Joey’s bib. We took it figuring we’d catch up to them shortly… and so we made our way up the short, steep hill out of Twin Lakes and on to meet the fifth beast of the day… the climb out of Twin Lakes…